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A Time for War

ISSUE:  Autumn 1941

To everything there is a season,
And a time to every purpose under the heaven . . .
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time for war, and a time for peace.


If one were capable of scientific detachment in times like these, the most interesting phenomenon of democratic behavior would seem to be a universal paralysis of the will to act, even when the need for action is recognized. This has been true not only of the United States, but of every other country that has waited for Hitler.

Perhaps there is never a clear recognition by the majority of any people of the need to act. This numbness that has descended on the democracies and upon states like Russia and Turkey under the impending threat of becoming Hitler’s next victim has been the result of the inability of leaders and people to recognize at first the true nature of the threat.

Confusion has been worse confounded by the presence in every country of a large and articulate group who believed that Hitler offered no real threat, that it was possible “to do business with Hitler,” and who welcomed him as a potential deliverer from the threat of Communism and world revolution. This failure both of the imagination and of the reason in countries like Austria, the Oslo group, and others, was only in part shared by Czecho-Slovakia and Poland. Even in these countries, however, Hitler found his allies. Far more important, he found real support in the only centers of resistance which could, at an earlier stage, have smashed him effectively—in France, in Britain, and in Russia. The mutual distrust between governing groups in Russia and in Britain, well founded as it was, was undoubtedly Hitler’s greatest aid in preparing and keeping to his systematic time table of destruction.

When we consider the Nazi movement and its record of broken promises, its unlimited appetite for power, its declared intention to make Germany the ruling nation of the world, it is difficult to understand why its victims, who up to 1940 possessed power enough to crush it, should, instead of combining, have assumed the cowering attitude of “devil take the hindmost.” Surely such an attitude points to a profound ailment afflicting the proponents of freedom themselves; maybe it is an ailment that goes deeper than the distrust of Communism or the suicidal, class-minded shortsightedness of British Tories. Does it go down in its roots to a deep and corroding doubt of the values of the systems which Nazi-ism was created to destroy? Both France and Britain were well nigh as conscious as was Russia of possible weaknesses in their internal unity and in their ability to withstand the terrible ordeal to which they have now been subjected.

The interest in this analysis for Americans lies in the reappearance of the same pattern in our own thinking and feeling. At first it was impossible to convince the great bulk of the American people, overborne by an intense feeling of the futility of the last peace settlement, that this war was in any sense different from the last war, or that it held any real threat to the safety of our people if it were allowed to develop according to the plan which Hitler had outlined with cynical frankness in “Mein Kampf.” The shock of the fall of France, which was the first real rousing of the British to the task before them, was also our first real shock. We had already morally taken sides, but we were unwilling to back our indignation. Characteristically we vented it in pronouncements on the issues, in preachments on the iniquity of the rest of the world in general, and on the iniquity of Hitler and Stalin in particular.

This was much like the attitude that had governed England and France in the days when Hitler was gradually consolidating his hold on central Europe, up to the invasion of Prague and the destruction of the false hopes engendered by Munich in many wishful thinkers.

At the present time the most insidious danger is that we may be lulled into a sense of false security once more if Russia continues to hold into the winter. The same voices that only recently assured us that the war was hopelessly lost for Great Britain and that it was too late for any American effort to count have since with equal assurance told us that Russia will “bog Hitler down indefinitely; Germany has already lost the war.” If they should prove to be wrong about that, as they were about the destruction of Britain by the air strength of Germany, they will promptly revert to the original line and say that, having conquered Russia, Hitler is more omnipotent than ever and that it would be folly to join issues with him. In that sense Hitler has had a very distinct new ally added to his previous power to hypnotize us into inaction. But let us see what are the r.*al alternatives with which we at present are confronted and then let us see what the prospects of acting on them may be.

There is temptation, on the evidence at hand, to believe that Providence is looking after this country as it is alleged to care for drunken men, fools, and children. With any luck at all, and a little less regard for time tables, Hitler’s chances of smashing England in the summer of 1940 were extremely good. Had Hitler won, the complete unreadiness of this country to protect the hemisphere which we had underwritten is now pretty well known. We were, by the grace of God and the ability of the Royal Air Force, granted a respite. Then, when the British were in painfully close danger of losing the Mediterranean, after Crete had fallen and Turkey was on the point of going over to Germany, Hitler chose to attack Russia. Once more his schedule, at the very least, has been upset, for the Russian morale did not disintegrate under Hitler’s hammer blows. Those forces that Tolstoi describes in epic and poetic vein in “War and Peace” have once more come to the aid of Russia.

It would indeed be foolish to assume that Hitler could be destroyed by his Russian venture alone, any more than Napoleon was. The chances of Hitler’s survival, in this chaotic conflict now going on, seem to be considerably greater than the chances of Stalin. Stalin can never do more than stop Hitler. To finish Napoleon, even after the terrible retreat from Moscow, it took a Waterloo, won by the combined strength of England and most of Europe. The real probabilities are generally conceded, by those who have made careful studies of the forces involved, to be that Hitler will, at some stage, establish his hold on a considerable part of Russia and that the rest is likely then to crumble and fall into the hands of one puppet government or several, which might well bring him face to face with us across Bering Strait. If that were the outcome, quite certainly he could devote his time to consolidating his hold in the oil and grain reserves of the rich regions that he has coveted from the beginning, and then turn his attention, once again, to the British. How long under those circumstances all North and West Africa and the Near East could be held would be a very open question. A “peace” drive on his part at that time would be an obvious strategic move and the grounds for it are now being prepared by those who serve him knowingly or unknowingly, at this time, in this country. Both he and Japan need “peace” to consolidate their holds on what they have won.

Nothing would be further from our national interests than to promote a negotiated peace on the part of England that would leave England for the future in a position not very unlike that of the Vichy government in relation to Germany. It does not require an elaborate weighing of the future balance of power in the world to demonstrate that an England reduced to seeking peace through weakness and dependent upon a Germany triumphant over Europe, Africa, and a great part of Asia, would become for us at best a doubtful barrier and at worst an actual threat, under pressure from Hitler, as France has become a threat to England today. The building strength of so triumphant a Germany would be a very great strain upon us in a naval way. There is very little probability of our being able to meet it with the shipyards and the labor at our disposal. Japan’s position in the Pacific would certainly be buttressed by Germany until her major aims of crippling us as a real power were achieved. This would mean the continuing pressure of an upper and a nether millstone grinding on the hemisphere which we are pledged to defend. What position Canada would play in these circumstances we have no way of knowing. Presumably as a matter of survival Canada and Australasia would be drawn closer to our system. South Africa would be lost, as would the whole of the continent of Africa and the great nearer ranges of Asia, even if Russia held out beyond the Urals.

It becomes imperative, therefore, from the point of view of our national safety itself, that we should throw our weight immediately and to the fullest extent to insuring that Hitler does not consolidate his hold on the vast regions which may well lie within his grasp if he can destroy first Russia and then Britain. The protection of the United States begins, as President Roosevelt has I think convinced this country, in the Atlantic approaches. If Iceland is an important advance base, if Dakar holds a real threat to our security in South America, the most elementary strategy would indicate that England and Ireland are the real advance bases. Ireland is more essential than all the other islands of the Atlantic to the protection of that base. Only by bases in Ireland can the battle of the Atlantic be won, and England’s back door of invasion be barred. Once in this war, we might get a foothold to protect Ireland that de Valera could never give to Great Britain.

The psychological aspects of warfare and the effects on domestic morale, on our allies (already so in everything but honest declaration), and on our enemies (whom we have gone so far as to name in an official blacklist of “trading-with-the-enemy” firms), is of an importance greater than anything we can immediately do in the field. The effect of winning over Ireland on our own Americans of Irish descent is certainly worth considering. A Germany confronted by a determined Anglo-American world, already solidly entrenched in bombing positions and destroyer and fleet bases in the North Atlantic, would lose its prestige of invincibility. Hitler’s magic, already shaken by Russia and by Britain’s growing offensive air power, would lose its aura of deadly irresistibility. His own people, particularly those whose doubts had been stilled under a mighty shout of Sieg Heil, would begin to remember the past, and be shaken. South America, which on the whole hesitates to sieze the Axis ships outright, would pluck up heart. Our friends everywhere, the Chinese, the Dutch in the East Indies, the Free French, the British, would know that the tide had turned, that the false “Wave of the Future” was on the ebb, and that free men might breathe again without fear. Above all, in this country, the great flood of courage and strength that conies with action would pour in to drown out the snarling threats of revolution and disaster from those whose personal fortunes are at stake with Hitler’s victory, from those who even now have been driven to the last desperation of spiritual sabotage.

On the other side of the picture, what would be the state of mind of this nation now arming to the teeth and already possessed of the world’s most formidable navy and of a great half-trained army and air force, should we disintegrate into aimlessness, willing by default to let others bear the heat and burden of battle, even though we have declared their fight to be our fight? What would become of our unity as a nation? What of our doubts and disillusionment concerning a system of government so hopelessly incapable of decision in our hour of supreme test?

If England in despair of our full help yielded her hopes of the future to escape immediate destruction, what would be the effect in increasing appeasement here in America? Would we still hold to Iceland and the Atlantic approaches? Would we make German penetration of Martinique, or Quebec, or even Argentina or Brazil, a fighting matter, having refused to fight when we had allies? Would we not soon have the Axis consuls back again, more brazen than ever, and their Quislings and their “Let’s do business with Hitler friends,” yet bolder than brass?

Let those who choose to do so regard this vein of prophecy as merely “war hysteria.” The record is plain. Those who have waited for Hitler have been half-destroyed from within by paralyzing doubts and fears, even before the blitz descended. We can, if we choose, have a Hitler peace indefinitely—at a price. The price will be that we lose control of the seas, and thus the power to resist aggression anywhere outside our own continental territories. By taking over the colonial empires of the world, Japan and Germany and their jackal allies could deprive us of vital materials, a lack of which already cramps our industries: graphite, tin, mica, cobalt, asbestos, tungsten, antimony, cadmium, copper, vanadium, zinc, and rubber, and a dozen others. We should go dreadfully short of chrome and manganese, and be hard put to keep a dwindling steel industry going. We should have to scrape and improvise for innumerable fibers like manila hemp, burlap, sisal, and the like. We should be cut short of industrial diamonds and perhaps quartz crystals as our slender stockpiles dwindled. And, cursing our own futility, we should be ripe for a Master—Hitler would have destroyed us, as a free people, even if he never conquered us by arms.

It is not through strength and decisive action that democracies are lost. War waged by a nation united in its decision to save its soul has never yet destroyed democracy, Who preaches that myth? Nor has a societas perfecta in the Hutchins version ever been created by running away from a nation’s moral duty. The Athens of Pericles was the creation of the victory of the lowest class of Athenian sailors at Salamis. Even defeated by plague and by Sparta, Athens recaptured her life as a democracy to give Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle birth—harsh critics of Athens but nurtured in that free air.

This is a fight for freedom. To escape taking active part is not to escape taking sides. It is to take sides against freedom by default.

Even if, by miracles, Hitler and Stalin and all their works disappeared without our striking a blow, the moral confusion of our times would be disastrous to a people unled and reluctant. If we had watched the British through to victory like an opiated audience at a movie, what would be our state of mind and what would be theirs? England, with some loss of blood and treasure, would have found herself once again. Strong, united, supported by proud sons who had done a man’s duty, she would accept whatever help we had given or would give. But how, on even terms, could we face those who had faced the issue of freedom, had risked death as a people, while we had temporized and sulked? I find the English difficult enough, even when they have been matched in arms, as they were last time. The world would be big with trouble, if we had only stood by, while by tome miracle they won the war. If we are in this war, as indeed we are of it by act after act that Hitler is careful to note but not to resent until the time comes, let us be in it all out. Then an end to doubts and a release to self-respect. To be half in and half out is not possible if Hitler is winning, and fatal if he does win.

When Hitler is stopped, when the British are “over the hump,” as they will hardly be without our efforts or without a miracle, we have some matters for the future to settle before we come to a peace table or even to an armistice. We must take hostages, and soon, to see that the resources of the empires of the British, French, Dutch, and Belgians, saved by our aid, are opened to the world. We will have the right to demand that assets be put on the table. Then we can claim a senior partner’s share in their redistribution —but only if we have borne the battle, too. And only from bearing it shall we emerge fit to assume the responsibilities of a new world order with other nations of good will.

By leaving physical possession under international mandate to their present holders, but pooling voting control in ourselves and all free nations, we could erect an international holding company for colonial resources, allotting shares to Japanese, Germans, Italians, and the presently “aggressor” nations as they scrapped their bombers and tanks and came back to the harsh task of working for peace aims and not for conquest. The International Tin Association and the Dutch «British rubber pool of today are “rackets.” They may yet become the prototypes of really international organizations to pool the raw materials for the future use of all nations according to need. There is enough to go around, enough of natural wealth, of human energy, and of the ability to use it. A practicable step, a world organization with teeth in it through the power to withhold strategic materials from all rearming nations—that is a peace aim to hold out. We need to hold it and to be able to make it stick, as we say. We can only do so if we have won the right to that high trusteeship: only through facing realities and running the risks can we in victory be magnanimous. Only so can the American dream that is in our hearts become a living thing; only so can a world emerge into the possibility, at least, of human freedom once more.

This is the wind, not the wave, of the future, the true future of a humanity believing in its divine heritage. If we are to strike the shackles from our national will, if we are to defeat spiritual sabotage, if we are to resolve our doubts, the Hamlet-like indecision and futility of our generation, we must make a new security for our souls. It cannot be done by war alone, but it cannot be done now without arousing the spirit and trying the issue—now. It is either moral disintegration that lies ahead or “the last full measure of devotion.”


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